Alex Cole-Hamilton: Nicola’s path to separation means a hard border
I wonder when Nicola Sturgeon first realised the nature of the trap she’s in. The First Minister reigns at a time where her path to independence has never seemed clearer: persuade enough Remain voting No voters that through independence, she could offer them a route back into EU membership and she gets the majority she needs. Yet several brutal realities are fast emerging which will block that path forever. Brexit is, ironically, both the key and the lock to her lifelong hopes of separation.
I remember the day after the Brexit vote – several No-voting friends started talking openly about switching their views on Scottish independence. They reasoned that if it came down to a choice between two unions, then they’d pick Europe over a UK they no longer recognised.
That shift was evidenced in opinion polls conducted over the following Saturday, which for the first time had support for independence cresting 60 per cent. I will always believe in forging political unions with near neighbours, so I was hardly going to meet the loss of one union I care about by jettisoning the other. I didn’t agree with them but I understood why they’d moved.
Within a week, the trauma of the result had subsided a bit and so too had the support for independence. However, the possibility that the pendulum might swing back has remained and Nicola Sturgeon has trimmed her sails in that direction ever since. Yet, at the same time, two undeniable, possibly unassailable, obstacles have emerged in that course to thwart her ambitions.
The first such roadblock is literal rather than metaphorical. Everyone knows about the possibility of a hard border on the island of Ireland in the event of a harder form of Brexit. Well, the same issues would apply should an independent Scotland seek to rejoin the EU. Europe needs to protect access to its single market wherever its frontiers lie and that means border checks at Gretna.
The second significant hurdle was restated last week with the publication of the Scottish Government’s own statistics on revenue and spending in Scotland. That publication of GERS figures revealed that Scotland spends more on public services than we bring in through tax and by a margin. All told, our deficit runs at just over seven per cent whilst the rest of the UK stands at roughly one per cent.
The Scottish Government and their surrogates breathlessly sought to spin the narrative that the GERS stats were good news, but aside from the “austerity on stilts” that Scotland would have to embark on to reverse the deficit, the figures cast doubt over whether an independent Scotland could actually join the EU.
The SNP dashed out a press release along the lines of: “GERS shows that Scotland brings in enough revenue to deliver all existing public services and a welfare state, so we already have the strength to go it alone.” Oh really? But who is going to pay for a new army? Or all the embassies we’ll need? Or an overseas aid budget? And, on top of all that (and this is the big one), who’s going to pay the annual £1bn fee (0.7 per cent of our Gross National Income) that the EU requires for membership?
Suddenly the “choice between two unions argument” doesn’t look quite so simple. Indy-curious Remain voters who might be prepared to junk the UK to rejoin the EU will be confronted with the harsh reality that to do so may require a hard border with England and a fee we can’t afford.
Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western.